A choice kingdom in Chittorgarh

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Asia » India » Rajasthan » Chittorgarh
January 31st 2015
Published: May 4th 2015
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We were leaving Bundi and travelling south west to the district of Chittor (or Chittorgarh). We woke early at 5am, had a quick shower on our hot water rations, organised our packs and headed to the lobby to use the wifi. We were leaving the hotel at 7am, and we’d heard that there would be limited internet access for the next two days. We were travelling to Bassi by train and then to Pangarh by jeep (where our lakeside campsite was located). We would be camping under the stars tonight.

We travelled to the Bundi train station by jeep and arrived at 7.15am. We waited on the platform until our train arrived at 7.45am. It was a pretty basic local train and there were no allocated seats, so we jumped on and grabbed whatever was available. Luckily the train wasn’t crowded, so we managed to secure an eight sleeper berth between six of us. I grabbed a sweet chai (tea) from one of the many wallahs, and it slowly warmed me up. The morning was cold and the train was icy, so anything warm was a major plus.

We arrived in Bassi around 10.30am, jumped off the train and walked out of the station into a very rural streetscape. A basic jeep with a trailer was waiting for us, so we threw our packs in the trailer, squeezed into the back of the jeep and headed off towards Pangarh. We passed through a local village before the road narrowed and agricultural land surrounded us from horizon to horizon. We arrived at Pangarh Retreat (our lakeside campsite) at 11.30am, dropped our packs in our very comfortable tents and headed to lunch at 12.30pm.

Lunch was a fairly basic affair – overcooked vegetable pakoras (deep fried vegetable fritters), warm masala chips (chips with cumin), and insipid toasted cheese/tomato sandwiches. It was the worst meal we’ve had so far in India, but the incredible location and atmosphere made the food far more enjoyable than it really should have been.

We walked to a nearby village on the lake’s edge and wandered around its dirt and cobbled streets. Mainstream tourism has not touched this tiny part of India, so we were very conspicuous as the only non-locals. Children followed us everywhere and adults offered us chai. There were few motorbikes and fewer cars in the village. We had travelled far enough south to be warm for a change, so it was nice to walk back to our campsite in the dry afternoon sun. We sat on the enclosed deck area in front of our tent overlooking the small lake and caught up on our travel notes.

Just a quick note on the tents. Yes, they were tents, but they were tents with a difference. First of all, they had a toilet and shower with hot water. Secondly, they had two single beds pushed together to make a double bed. Thirdly, they had a mosquito net. This wasn’t really camping – it was ‘glamping’ (glamour camping).

Around 5pm we walked to the ruins of an old fort on a small hill on the other side of the lake. It was an enchanting old ruin, and it offered a fantastic view of the campsite and surrounding villages. One of the local dogs accompanied us all the way, although he got a little impatient at the ruin itself – he just lay down and whimpered as we took photographs. We wandered back to the campsite around dusk, and our four legged companion was very happy to be moving. Three musicians (harmonium, cymbals and dholak) were playing beside the lake in an open seating area where a small fire was burning, so we ordered a few drinks, sat back and relaxed. This was an incredible setting, and even though the musicians themselves weren’t terribly accomplished, it didn’t matter in the least. This was the rural India I wanted to experience.

We were served bowls of hot soup as we sat around the fire, and then we went into the dining area at 8pm for a buffet dinner of dahl, gobi taktakin (cauliflower spiced with cumin), aloo methi (dry potatoes with fenugreek leaves), carrot, pea and tomato curry, fried fish, rice and chapathis (unleavened flat round wholemeal bread). It was great, although I think our appetite from all the walking had made the buffet far more appealing that it really was.

After dinner we wandered back to our tents and collapsed into bed at 9pm. It had been an incredibly relaxing travel day. The beds were warm and comfortable, and we were asleep in no time.

Apart from finding two of the local dogs in the tent during the night (they’d found some empty snack packets in the rubbish bin), we had a great night’s sleep. I woke at 5am and tried the camp shower in vain, hoping the water would be hot (or at least warm). It wasn’t, so I had a cold shower in the dark. As we walked outside the tent we were greeted by the most incredible sunrise over the lake. Our buffet breakfast was basic. It comprised porridge, masala omelette (spicy omelette with red onions and green chillies), fried potatoes, toast and masala chai (spiced sweet milky tea). However, when you are in such idyllic environs, basic food tastes brilliant!

We checked out of Pangarh Retreat at 9am, jumped into an old jeep and drove through the local rural landscape on our way to Bijaipur. We passed small villages, a remote dam and endless crops of wheat, mustard, chilli, fenugreek, opium poppies and garlic. We stopped at a small Bheel tribe village and walked amongst the people as they went about their daily routines. This was an amazing experience, and I was very grateful for the opportunity.

We were leaving Pangarh and travelling by jeep to Bijaipur. However, we were not leaving the district of Chittor, as both resorts were in very close proximity and run by the same family.

We arrived at Castle Bijaipur at 11.15am and were greeted with a tilak (red powder marking) on the forehead, a flower garland around the neck and a cold cola. This was a truly incredible place. We dropped our packs in our opulent room and walked into the local village with two friendly local dogs. We picked up some snacks, made our way back to the castle, ordered a couple of masala chais and settled on the swinging chair outside our room. We eventually moved to the hotel’s poolside and relaxed in the afternoon sun. We spent the rest of the day swimming, sunbathing, exploring the castle and relaxing on the enormous balcony outside our room. This was fast becoming an extraordinary travel day!

We made our way through the old castle’s labyrinth of stairwells to an open courtyard at 7.30pm for drinks around a bonfire. Three musicians (harmonium, cymbals and dholak) were playing at the end of the courtyard, and while their playing wasn’t brilliant (I’m pretty sure they was the same guys as the night before), they added to an amazing atmosphere. The dining area was above the courtyard, so we made our way upstairs during a break in the music. We had a buffet meal of tomato soup (an odd inclusion), dahl, aloo methi (dry potatoes with fenugreek leaves), bhindi masala (dry fried spicy okra), carrot and tomato curry, chicken curry, yam curry (the hottest curry I’ve had so far in India), rice and chapathis. It was fantastic, and the yam curry made me break into a sweat. We had a very sweet dessert called malpua at the end of the meal which perfectly counteracted the heat of the yam curry.

We retired to the castle’s games room at the end of the evening and sat down to a game of carrom, which I can only describe as a cross between tiddly winks and eight ball. Ren had played it before (with her cousins in Sri Lanka), and she was a master. I struggled to flick the puck accurately, but I loved the game. We played until 11pm and then made our way back through the labyrinth of stairwells to our fantastic bedroom. These are the days that make travel memorable.

It was cold and dark at 6:50am when we got into jeeps at our Bundi hotel and headed to the station. We were heading to Pangarh and Bijaipur near the town of Bassi (in the Chittorgarh district). There was a small scene at reception as we were checking out as Ms grumpy-pants (last mentioned in our Jaipur blog) thought she was being swindled of the princely sum of about $1AUD and was being quite rude to the hotel staff. Ms grumpy-pants has a very selfish, suspicious and pessimistic personality which made her think that everyone was always out to scam her, or give her the worst room in the hotel, or serve her last on purpose etc etc – so there was always some crisis to complain about. And when she was in drama mode (which was about 50% of the time), she couldn’t care less how she was affecting the people around her. It was amusing to begin with, but it was getting more and more embarrassing by the day. If anyone has watched The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, we are totally convinced that the character of Jean is based on Ms grumpy-pants! 😊

That morning we were catching our first very local and very slow passenger train in second class with no reserved seating (yes, the ones with people hanging out the open doors). We were ready for a free-for-all to get our luggage on board and then find some empty seats. Some of our group were quite apprehensive about this, but I think it’s a quintessential part of rail travel in India and I really wanted to experience it.

The train was slightly delayed and we were still on the platform as the sun rose over the horizon. When the train finally rumbled in, our group leader Mohsin guided us to a carriage that he thought would have spare seats. We were lucky and got seats together. Paige and Meg slept while Hazel, Andrew and I caught up on our writing. We snacked on Masala Munch chips (crisps to you non-Australians), pistachio and ginger biscuits, and sesame and honey snaps (the snaps were absolutely divine!). I had to fight the urge to have a train chai (tea) when Andrew and Hazel had one... I was quite adamant that I really didn't want to use the toilet on the train. In the end, I might as well have had a chai, because I had to use the bathroom after all. It wasn't too bad.

Two and a half hours later we arrived at Bassi station, where we were picked up by jeeps for the drive to our accommodation. We were in a very forested rural area, but we were still surprised when we saw an Indian jackal running ahead of us on the road. It looked like a fox with wolfish colouring, and it was very beautiful to look at.

It was a nice surprise to drive through a woodland of eucalypt trees, the familiar fragrance of the gum trees tricking us into feeling like we were back in Australia. Eucalypts have been introduced into India for re-forestation purposes, as they are fast growing and drought resistant.

We eventually left the sealed road and drove down to a royal family’s luxury camping site – Pangarh Retreat – which was situated on the beautiful shores of a lake near the small village of Pangarh. We were welcomed with a line-up of the staff. We received a rose from the manager, and there was some half-hearted drumming from two of the guys – one was a big bass drum and the other I can only describe as a silver tray being hit with a drumstick. It was a bit cringe-worthy, but we smiled through it and hurried over to sit under the huge mango tree while we waited to be checked in.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this was my most favourite accommodation we’ve had on the trip so far. I have never set foot in a luxury tent before, so this was really exciting. I LOVED our tent. Each permanent tent had an attached bathroom tent that provided a semi-al-fresco washing situation, electricity, and hot and cold running water. Even though there was no heating, when it got cold that night we found that there were plenty of quilts and blankets to keep us warm. In fact, it was warmer in the tent than it had been in the haveli in Bundi the night before.

The camp was an updated version of the camps that would have housed the royal family’s hunting and horse riding parties decades ago. There was also a dining room where we had a buffet lunch of masala chips (hot chips with cumin), dry vegetable pakoras (deep fried vegetable fritters) and toasted cheese and tomato sandwiches. Lunch was very disappointing to say the least, but the setting was so beautiful that we almost didn’t mind. The camping site only hosts Intrepid Travel guests, so we had the run of the whole property.

There were clouds of tiny mustard flies all around the camp – apparently they swarm the countryside when the mustard harvesters disturb them. At various points, we had to put our heads down and sprint to our tents to avoid the zig-zaggy swarms that swept through the property...and most importantly, we had to remember to keep our mouths shut as we ran. 😊

After lunch Andrew and I visited the camp's extensive fruit and vegetable garden. It's a self-sufficient camp, and most of the food we ate on our stay either came from this garden or the gardens of the villagers. We then walked to the village on the other side of the lake. There were less than fifty or so houses, and the people were reserved but friendly. There were three very affluent double storey houses with wrought iron gates and cars, while the other mud brick houses varied in size and poshness. It was quite interesting to see that even in such a small village, the rungs of the wealth and status ladder were so clear.

Intrepid Travel brings a small group of tourists to the camp regularly in peak season, so the villagers were obviously used to having tourists walk through the village. The families of one of the double storey houses were sitting outside having cups of tea, and seemed to be inviting us to join them. However, by this stage we had about ten raucous children trailing behind us, and we didn't want to make any more of a spectacle, so we politely declined. A few of the children followed us begging for pencils and chocolate, which made it clear that not everyone had listened to Intrepid's advice on not giving the kids gifts. I think it’s quite irresponsible to foster such a begging mentality in children. I suppose some people’s need to feel good about themselves overshadows what is considered to be in the long-term best interests of the local communities we pass through. We walked down what looked to be the main paved street in the village, which led to a small school. We started to cut through the smaller dirt paths, but felt like we were intruding on people’s privacy (as not all the houses had fences of high stacked stone walls), so we decided to head back to our camp.

The afternoon sun was just gorgeous and on our return from the walk, we sat in the front netted-in section of our tent and caught up on some writing. I had a short nap and later played with the camp puppy Roster (who had just been taught to play fetch by Meg, and was very excited about it). Andrew was being a sun-seeker and kept moving around the lake so he could write his notes while sun bathing. Later we sat back and enjoyed watching the evening light turn the village and lake a golden yellow.

Dinner was still a while away, so Andrew and I decided to walk to the 12th century fort – Pangarh – after which the village and campsite were named. The puppy Roster walked with us (with some gentle encouragement), but I don’t think he realised it was going to be an uphill walk for one hour. He couldn’t have been more than six months old and he was still making sense of the life around him. He knew not to approach the grumpy water buffalo that had already angrily grumped at me when I walked up to it to take a photograph, but he didn't know what to make of the herds of goats being taken home for the night. I had noticed that people in rural areas don't really trust the dogs around them, so I kept a close eye on Roster to make sure he didn't scare any of the goats. By the time we reached the fort it was just on dusk, and we realised that Mohsin had also decided to join us. At the top of the fort we split up to explore, only to have Roster start whimpering at me. We figured out that he wanted everyone to stay together and didn’t stop whimpering until we started walking back to camp. Such a sooky puppy!

We had pre-dinner drinks sitting around an open fire under a cold starlit sky. The mood was set by three local musicians playing Indian folk music on a harmonium, little cymbals and a dholak drum – they were singing folk songs about love and life. We were offered hot roasted peanuts, masala chips and salted guavas with our drinks. Mohsin had bought the guavas at a roadside fruit stall near the station that morning – they were of the greenish-yellow variety and very fragrant. On this trip we were being a bit more careful with fresh fruit and vegies, and hoped to adhere to the ‘cook it, peel it or forget it’ rule, so I was glad to see that the guavas had been peeled. However, peeling them was a bit of a pity, as I really like how the tart sourness of the guava skin normally balances the sweet fruit.

A mixed vegetable soup was served to us around the fire, and we then moved into the dining room for a buffet dinner. We had rice with peas, dahl, gobi taktakin (cauliflower spiced with cumin), aloo methi (dry potatoes with fenugreek leaves), and a tomato, carrot and pea curry. It wasn’t anything brilliant, but it was a big improvement from lunch and we were hungry. For dessert we had warm sooji halwa (semolina pudding with raisins and nuts), which was the best part of the meal.

As I fell asleep in our cosy tent, I heard traditional music and singing coming from the village across the lake. That night we slept the sleep of very happy people. Andrew woke in the middle of the night to find two dogs in our tent. They scampered out when he woke up, but the next morning we found a biscuit wrapper from our bin just outside our tent. Cheeky dogs. That will teach us not to zip up our tent flaps!

We woke up very early to watch the sunrise, and we felt very spoilt being able to watch such a beautiful sunrise across the lake from the foot of our tent. Breakfast was served in the dining room – there was porridge, fried potatoes, masala omelette (spicy omelette with red onions and green chillies), toast, fresh carrot juice and tea. Again, it wasn’t brilliant food, but it was the best meal at the camp so far and it certainly filled us up.

Our stay at Pangarh Retreat had come to an end, and I was really sad to leave Roster and the camp (despite the not-so-fabulous food). This experience has made me want to seek out other luxury camping options on our future travels.

Later that morning we moved to Castle Bijaipur for our next heritage stay. On the way we stopped at a massive dam that is used to irrigate the many farms in the area. Given the rocky barren landscapes in this region, it is pretty amazing that such productive farms have been wrestled from it. We then stopped at a farm where wheat, mustard, beans and chillies were commercially grown. There was also a special government area where opium was being cultivated for the Indian pharmaceutical industry. There was no more security here than at the poppy farms in Tasmania. 😊

We visited a nearby Bheel tribe village next to the farms. Originally nomadic hunting tribes, they have now settled into an agricultural life. They were very welcoming of us into their village, and were as openly curious about us as we were of them. A fair exchange I thought.

We then finally arrived at our gorgeous accommodation. The 16th century Castle Bijaipur sits at the end of a sweeping drive within a fortified wall in the Vindhyanchal Hills. Even though it has been converted into a hotel, it is still home to the local royal family who still live in one wing of the castle (the same royal family also owns the Pangarh Retreat we’d camped at the night before). The staff were very attentive, and we were welcomed with garlands of marigolds and a tilak (red powder marking) on our foreheads, while two musicians played traditional music in the entrance courtyard.

The castle was decorated very tastefully in what I would call a restrained antique Indian style. I was extremely thrilled when we were shown to our luxuriously large suite which was off an open marble walkway. There was a stunning old Rajasthani mural on one wall and small wall alcoves with miniature art surrounding the rest of the bedroom. The dressing room had gorgeous heavy wooden furniture and pressed metal work, and the bathroom was bigger than most European hotel rooms we’ve stayed in. But my favourite features were just outside our suite – the lovely swing chair in the walkway (where I ended up spending most of the afternoon) and the recessed sitting area that overhung the courtyard below. 😊

After we’d settled in, we (Hazel, Paige, Andrew and I) went for a quick walk into the local village of Bijaipur. The village started right at the ramparts of the castle, and its small size suggests that it most likely only came into existence to serve the castle. Two castle dogs who I shall call Black dog (we later learnt his name was Blackie!) and Golden dog provided a guard of honour for our walk and happily trotted through the motorcycle and tractor traffic with us. I was amazed that they stuck with us through the whole circuit of the village, given we had only met them for five minutes before the walk. We walked around looking for some snacks, and bought biscuits to have with cups of masala chai (spiced sweet milky tea) on our balcony.

This was the first really warm day we’d had in the north, and it was nice to be wearing just one layer again! We spent the rest of the afternoon drinking beer and banana lassis (frothy yogurt and milk drinks) while relaxing, writing and reading around the swimming pool. The squirrels (there were dozens of them) soon realised that I had biscuits in my bag, and the cheeky little buggers kept trying to get into the bag. In the end, I succumbed and created little feeding stations for them away from where we were lounging. They clearly weren't the brightest of critters, and it took a while for them to figure out what was going on. I usually have strict rules about not feeding the wildlife, but this was a strategy to keep them away from where we were sitting (and they were also very very cute)!

As dusk fell, we stood at the castle ramparts and watched the landscape change colour from dusty yellow to dusty pink, with the last birds flying home over the village rooftops. The village was surrounded by a forest of thorny trees, and beyond that the surrounding countryside was full of farmland growing mustard, corn and poppies. It really was the quintessential Indian rural settlement – women in brightly coloured outfits walked home with firewood on their heads, and boys drove buffalos home...both raising a stream of dust in their wake. It was a perfectly serene ending to a beautiful day.

In the evening (in a repeat of the night before), the hotel had organised three local musicians who played cymbals, harmonium, and a dholak drum while singing local folk songs in one of the open courtyards of the castle. Even with the bonfire that had been lit in the courtyard, we were almost numb with cold, and nobody was interested in sitting outside to listen to the musicians. It was slightly awkward! After a couple of token drinks, we hurried upstairs to the dining room where it was marginally warmer.

There was an excellent dinner buffet on offer. As with the camp, the castle kitchen only used local organic produce from the village and from their own garden...but the big difference was that they had an excellent chef at this property. After a tomato soup entree, we hit the buffet of dhal, tomato and carrot curry, bhindi masala (dry fried spicy okra), aloo methi (dry potatoes with fenugreek leaves), chicken curry, rice, and of course the staple of this region – chapathis (unleavened flat round wholemeal bread). Andrew and Mohsin also shared an additional ‘Indian spicy’ yam curry, which was well beyond my chilli tolerance! Dessert was a local speciality – malpua – crispy fried doughy pancakes soaked in syrup (the flavour was similar to a churros). It was a really fabulous meal.

After dinner Mohsin taught us how to play carrom. The best way I could describe this Indian game is to say it’s like playing billiards as a board game. The square wooden board has four side pockets, and the aim is to sink little round carrom pieces into them, but you use your fingers instead of cues. I had played this on holidays in Sri Lanka when I was a child and I enjoyed playing it again - but it was a bit hard on my fingers and finger nails. Mohsin, Andrew, Paige, Megs and I played two games and called it a night when we realised that we were keeping the staff up.

After a very comfortable night, I walked up to the rooftop to check out the sunrise, but it wasn’t that stunning. However, I really enjoyed watching the village come to life below me. There was also a hilarious pantomime taking place on a rooftop as a peacock tried desperately to get the attention of uninterested peahen. He turned around to display his fanned out feathers, and she took the opportunity to jump off the roof. The poor peacock looked comical confused when he finally turned around to an empty rooftop. I probably shouldn’t have found that as funny as I did. And the poor peacock certainly didn’t deserve my jeers of ‘haha sucker’! 😄

Sadly our stay at the castle was coming to an end. The relaxed style of this castle hotel was very much its biggest selling point. Even though they insisted on lavishing full Rajput hospitality on us, it didn’t feel forced in any way. I could easily come back here for a week or two of R&R.

It had certainly been two very relaxing and luxurious days. Our time in Pangarh Retreat and Bijaipur Castle had definitely provided an insight into the life of Rajasthani royalty. I think I may have developed a taste for luxury camping and castle hotels, and after these opulent and lavish experiences it was going to be difficult going back to normal run-of-the-mill hotels.

Next we head to Udaipur, Rajasthan’s romantic lake city.


5th May 2015
castle bijaipur

Love your photos, what a beautiful smile this lady has!
6th May 2015
castle bijaipur

Re: Welcome!
Thanks Rachael. It was a very lovely welcome...which made walking up to a reception desk at our next hotel seem a bit ordinary!
6th May 2015
roster of pangarh retreat

Ho hum--another extraordinary Intrepid day!
You two are the most properly spoiled travelers! Palaces, resorts, glamping, your own private musicians, hanging out by the pool or on the swing surrounded by marble--well, you know how to travel! Luxury plus experiencing the authentic, rural life in villages, riding in a second-class train, and seeing a jackal! And oh, the eyes on that little Roster--what a heart melt. Glad you find pups wherever you go, Andrew finally got very hot curry, and the warmer weather hopefully dried out Ren's cold. Yes, properly spoiled!
6th May 2015
roster of pangarh retreat

Re: Ho hum--another extraordinary Intrepid day!
Yes we were very spoiled for those two days! We really wanted to be part of as wide a range of the Indian experience as possible...the rajputs were such a big part of Rajasthan's history. Roster was a sweetheart and he already knew how to use those eyes - I got that look when I asked him what he was doing INSIDE the tent! Having two sunnny days in a row made a big difference to my cold and cough. :)
7th May 2015
pangarh retreat

Nice retreat
You've truly had a myriad of experiences on this trip. The basic and the luxury. This looks wonderful. Glad you have your furry friends with you wherever you go. Lots of history and amazing architecture and simple life along the way. Guess you should have had the tea -- glad the restroom was not as bad as expected.
8th May 2015
pangarh retreat

Re: Nice retreat
Yes we really did Merry Jo - we've both been talking about going back to this part of Rajasthan. I think my enjoyment of a hotel triples if the property comes with a furry friend :)
23rd July 2015

Nothing but magical.
Your experiences sound magical; warm welcomes, fantastic lodgings, friendly locals, real travelling experiences, you are selling the tour and this place big time. Intrepid should be paying you!... I was waiting for an reappearance of Mrs Grumpy pants. She sounds very amusing although I'd rather not have to put up listening to someone's unnecessary complaints. I can't help but ask myself why she travels?
24th July 2015

Re: Nothing but magical.
The stay in the luxury tents and in the castle were easily among the best accommodation we had in India. Ms grumpy-pants kept us amused at the start of the trip, but it got very annoying after a while... I learnt to block her voice from my hearing range :)

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